The Lion King

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

SPECTACULAR, wonderful, brilliant, magnificent. majestic, bostin' – take your pick, any superlative will do.

This is a show about costumes, design, special effects and above all imagination; first on the part of Walt Disney to conceive and transform a successful animated film to the stage and second on the part of an audience to see past the puppets and masks and believe.

We get a one man operated near life-size elephant trundling down an aisle - the aisles are merely an extension to the stage - then there are giant loping giraffes which your head tells you are men on stilts but your heart convinces you that they are roaming the veldt. 

Stephen Carlile as the deliciously wicked Scar in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek performance

There are birds, fabric attached to wires on poles  says your head but in your heart it is a whole flock of exotic African wildlife swooping across the aisles and from the boxes across the vast expanse of the . . . well Hippodrome really, but you know what I mean.

There is clever lighting from Donald Holder, a silently gliding Pride Rock, a huge elephant's graveyard and even a stampede of wildebeest.

It is a difficult feat to work on stage but Richard Hudson’s scenic design and the fabulous masks, puppets and costumes from director Julie Taymor and Michael Curry give an illusion which manages to build tension and excitement through to its dramatic climax. 

There were elements of Chinese theatre with a giant screen and shadow fights in the final showdown between the lionesses and hyenas and choreographer Garth Fagin - and the cast - deserves some credit  for keeping the massed ranks of animals in fights and chases apart particularly in the opening and closing numbers. The Hippodrome stage is huge but with those numbers milling around in body puppets and with mechanical extended headdresses a train wreck must always be only a few steps out of place away. The man hours in rehearsal must have been enormous.

The story is simple. Mufasa, played with regal assurance by Cleveland Cathnott, is the king, ruling the Pride Lands and all the animals in it with fairness and respect.

The show opens as his new son, Simba is presented to his loyal subjects. The new royal is played first as a cub by the excellent Joshua Cameron then as the troubled adult  by the convincing Nicholas Nkuna,

A happy family scene except for the king’s brother Scar, deliciously played as a rather tongue-in-cheek baddy by Stephen Carlile.

As all good baddies, Scar has to throw in a bit of evil to keep up appearances so  he uses treachery and an alliance with the hyenas, to do in the king and send Simba off into exile and hopefully his death. Simba, incidentally, is Swahili for lion.

Nicholas Nkuna, from Mpumalanga, South Africa, as Simba

The hyenas, Shenzi, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Banzai, Daniel Norford  and Ed, Philip Oakland, are great fun and mix the difficult task of being both sinister and threatening one minute with being pantomime baddies the next with great skill.

With Scar running Pride Lands into the dust, surrounded by famine and drought we are nicely set up for the great battle of good against evil at the end when Simba, encouraged by Nala, his childhood sweetheart, or should that be lionheart, returns to claim his throne.

Nala, played on Press night by Donica Elliston as the cub and then by the feisty Carole Stennett as a lioness, provides the love interest and perhaps the best known song of the show from Elton John and Tim Rice, Can You Feel The Love Tonight which has been covered by everyone from Neil Diamond to S Club.

Cleveland Cathnott gives us another musical highlight with the emotive They Live in You, from Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M while another big production number is provided by Carole Stennett with the stirring anthem, Shadowlands.

Singing credits though have to go to the simply wonderful Gugwana Diamini as Rafiki, the Mandril.

We perhaps have the likes of Paul Simon and Ginger Baker for introducing us the the primitive beauty of African music and she has a voice which you could well believe was its soul.

You could listen to her all night from her introduction to the show with Nants’ Igonyama (There comes a lion) from Hans Zimmer and Lebo M and Elton John and Tim Rice’s Circle of Life to its reprise at the close.

There are also various African chants from Lebo M for the effective Grasslands and lionesses and chants for Rafiki’s by  Tsidii Le Loka.

The brilliant Gugwana Dlamini, another South African who hails from  Durban as Rafiki

There are notable contributions as well from Meilyr Sion as Zazu the hornbill, the king’s advisor with a nice collection of one liners.

The real comedy comes in the rather large shape of Pumbaa the flatulent warthog though,  played for all the laughs going by Mark Roper along with the wisecracking Timon the meerkat played by John Hasler. Disney will probably not appreciate my saying it but Timon could be a long lost cousin of a certain well-known wabbit . . . if you see what I mean, Doc.

The pair are genuinely funny and it is funny how quickly you forget that the two actors operating them are patently obvious and just see and believe the puppets.

The sound was an issue at times, with words in songs not always clear, but with a three month run that should be sorted.

A mention to for an excellent orchestra under Jon Ranger with special mention for Will Fry and Adam Kovacs in boxes at either side of the auditorium surrounded by all manner of drums, cymbals and both modern and ethnic percussion instruments giving their own extra show.

Spectacular, wonderful, brilliant, magnificent – and to that you can add an experience not to be missed. To 28-09-13.

Roger Clarke

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